As a pure logistical feat, the rollout of vaccines in some Western nations has been nothing short of remarkable. By most other conceivable metrics, however, the global pandemic response — a response largely formulated and led by those very nations — has been a catastrophic moral failure. As Canada’s vaccine distribution skyrockets, pre-pandemic rhythms resume across swathes of the United States, and the UK prepares to wind down its remaining COVID restrictions, a palpable feeling of normalcy is gradually returning to affluent corners of the world. The major reason, plainly and simply, is that mass vaccinations work: both in terms of minimizing serious illness and limiting the virus’s spread.
Many Westerners are probably at least vaguely aware that the picture looks quite different outside of Europe and North America. Even a cursory scan of the data, however, makes clear just how significant the divide between rich and poor countries really is. Eighty-five percent of all vaccinations so far have been in higher-income nations, with those in the very poorest totaling just 0.3 percent. According to former Ecuadorian health minister Carina Vance Mafla, who cochaired a major recent summit on vaccine internationalism, nearly a hundred countries have yet to see even a single dose distributed. As Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla of the Progressive International noted after the summit’s conclusion, the European Union has already been able to strike a deal for nearly 2 billion booster shots despite the urgent need for first doses elsewhere — above all in Africa, whose more than 1 billion inhabitants have barely received vaccines at all. At current rates, Gandikota-Nellutla told The Intercept, it could take nearly sixty years to achieve global vaccination, a reality she quite rightly ascribes to nationalism, imperialism, and racism.
Recent calculations from the People’s Vaccine Alliance underscore just how slanted the current state of affairs really is:
G7 nations are vaccinating at a rate of 4,630,533 people per day. At that rate it would take 227 days to fully vaccinate their entire population, until 8 January 2022, assuming everyone receives two doses. Between them, Low Income Countries are vaccinating at a rate of 62,772 people per day. At that rate it will take them 57 years to vaccinate their entire population, until 7 October 2078, assuming everyone receives two doses.
The implications of this vaccine apartheid go far beyond extended lockdowns and other interruptions in the regular patterns of life. Poor and middle-income countries now respectively account for 43 percent and 42 percent of deaths worldwide, compared to 15 percent in wealthy ones. As the worldwide death toll from COVID surpasses 4 million, there’s every reason to believe the ratio will become even more skewed in months, and potentially years, ahead.
Despite hopes that the recent G7 conference might yield at least the beginnings of a properly coordinated global response, the 1 billion doses pledged by wealthy countries doesn’t even come close to the 11 billion that would be necessary to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population by the end of next year. As things stand, the worldwide effort exists more on paper than it does in reality, ultimately still being a jumbled patchwork of philanthropy and uneven production dominated by a handful of private companies whose main priority is meeting vaccine demand in the developed world. Until this dynamic changes, cases will continue to rise in poorer countries and new variants will continue to afflict even the fully vaccinated populations of the West. Even in the sense of narrow self-interest, then, the response of Western governments — even as life returns to normal across Europe and North American — can safely be called a failure.
It has not, however, been a failure of imagination or a series of innocent errors born out of a lack of experience with a pandemic of this scale. Rather, it has been, at least in part, a failure of ostensibly democratic political systems so deferential to corporate power that they have been unable and unwilling to pursue genuine international cooperation outside the logic of private profit. Free exchange of COVID technologies, shared regulatory and manufacturing capacity, and globally coordinated production would all increase the number of doses available, reduce the overall death toll, and bring the pandemic to a faster conclusion in every corner of the world.
Unless Big Pharma’s monopoly is broken and the reign of vaccine apartheid is ended, such coordination will remain impossible and COVID-19 will be with us all for years to come.